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Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah 53’

The famous Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52.13-53.12) is peppered with three rhetorical questions. In combination, they forcefully present the entirely unanticipated phenomenon that is the ‘Servant of YHWH’. Because the Song insistently personifies and individualizes the Servant figure, which has up to this point been clearly identified as Jacob/Israel, I will use the pronoun ‘he’ to represent the Servant in this context.

Although it is not the initial verse of the Song per se, the first verse of chapter 53 looses two of the three rhetorical questions to which I have referred.

Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

Isaiah 53:1 (NRSV)

This reflective duo accomplishes two objectives. First, it establishes the unanticipated nature of the Servant’s person and/or project. Curiously, the Servant’s identify is not the only conundrum presented in this song. That noteworthy ambiguity is complemented by the identity of the first-person plural protagonists represented here by we?

And then, the second of the two questions launched here appears to identify the Servant and/or his career with ‘the arm of the Lord’. There are other ways of reading the relationship between YHWH’s arm and the Servant himself, but this one is in my judgement the most coherent of the available options.

Somehow, the awful, YHWH-imposed suffering of the Servant seems to represent YHWH’s own powerful engagement with Jacob/Israel and perhaps even of the startled ‘kings’ and ‘nations’ of 52.15. This is perhaps paradox in its deepest form.

Verse 8 then serves up the third of the aforementioned rhetorical questions:

By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.

Isaiah 53:8 (NRSV, emphasis added)

NRSV’s reference to ‘his future’ is rather speculative. The Hebrew text does not specify an object for the verb to imagine/consider (Hebrew polel, שיח), leaving the particle כי that follows immediately to be rendered either as providing the content of the referenced ‘imagining’ or as the beginning of an explanation of the strangeness of the Servant’s circumstances. The English Standard Version provides an example of the former approach:

By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?

Isaiah 53:8 (ESV, emphasis added)

The New King James Bible exemplifies the latter interpretation:

He was taken from prison and from judgment, And who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; For the transgressions of My people He was stricken.

Isaiah 53:8 (NKJV, emphasis added)

By any reconfiguration of the syntax, the Fourth Servant Song affirms that YHWH accomplishes in the Servant a forceful and even militant achievement. At the same time, the Song suggests that the Servant embodies no foreseeable tactic on the part of YHWH himself. He is a complete and total, indeed a jaw-dropping surprise.

No one saw this coming, this battered and crushed survivor. This bearer of others’ guilt. This puzzling, redeeming Servant. This victim and accomplisher of YHWH’s purpose.

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One of the dominant motifs for Israel’s judgement in the book called Isaiah is the felling of the mighty tree that is Jacob/Israel. In fact, this notion occurs in the prophet’s Generative Encounter at Isaiah 6.13. There, restoration is hinted at—arguably—by the final clause, where ‘the holy seed’ and ‘its stump’ appear to refer to a remnant of the people that is eventually to be restored.

Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump.

Isaiah 6:13 (NRSV, quotation marks removed)

The stirring oracle of regeneration that appears in the book’s fourth chapter does something quite similar.

On that day the branch of the LORD shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel.

Isaiah 4:2 NRSV)

In a manner that anticipates several restoration motifs in this book, the ‘fruit of the land’ and quite possibly ‘the branch of the Lord … and the fruit of the land’ stand over against ‘the survivors of Israel’. The images are not, by appearances, coequal.

There exists a different interpretation of the syntax and the vocabulary that removes this ambiguity, reflected as early as the Septuagint and as recently as the Jewish Publication Society’s English translation of the Hebrew Bible:

Τῇ δὲ ἡμέρᾳ ἐκείνῃ ἐπιλάμψει ὁ θεὸς ἐν βουλῇ μετὰ δόξης ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς τοῦ ὑψῶσαι καὶ δοξάσαι τὸ καταλειφθὲν τοῦ Ισραηλ…

Isaiah 4:2 (LXX)

But on that day God will gloriously shine on the earth with counsel, to uplift and glorify what remains of Israel.

Isaiah 4:2 (NETS = New English Translation of the Septuagint)

In that day, The radiance of the LORD Will lend beauty and glory, And the splendor of the land [Will give] dignity and majesty, To the survivors of Israel.

Isaiah 4:1 (JPS)

It would probably be inaccurate to render this interpretive tradition as anti-messianic. Rather, it represents a non-messianic reading of a text that jostles uneasily with the Masoretic tradition. Targum Jonathan is an early voice that reads the text messianically in a way that reflects the path taken by most translation of Isaiah into modern languages, including English.

In that time the Messiah of the Lord will be for joy and for glory, and those who perform the Law for pride and for praise to the survivors of Israel.

Isaiah 4:2 (The Aramaic Bible)

For our purposes, it is important to note that the Masoretic presentation of 4.2 envisages a dual presence in the land inhabited by restored Israel, one that perhaps foreshadows the presence of the intensely personified servant over against a restored remnant population in the fourth servant song at 52.13-53.12. In each case, the people are there, alongside another presence that remains enigmatic that is at points a collective and at others a singular entity, yet always profoundly conjoined to the people.

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The stirring presentation of the Servant of YHWH (עבד יהוה) in the famous Fourth Servant Song (52.13-53.12) comprises the most intense and personified individualization of the Servant motif that is to be encountered in this long book. It is not difficult to see why messianic interpretation of the passage has been considered such a natural interpretation and has persisted among Christian readings of the book of Isaiah since earliest times.

What is less obvious in the book’s stewardship of the servant motif is the immediate pluralization of the metaphor that ensues. Already, 54.17 can claim the following on behalf of plural servants of YHWH (עבדי יהוה), naming it ‘their vindication from me (YHWH)’ in a manner that may well link the passage to the famous Servant’s experience in the Fourth Song:

No weapon that is fashioned against you shall prosper, and you shall confute every tongue that rises against you in judgment. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD and their vindication from me, says the LORD.

Isaiah 54:17 (NRSV)

Isaiah 56:6 offers a passing glance, though no less poignant for its brevity, at ‘foreigners’ whose love for YHWH’s name makes them welcomed servants of his alongside ‘eunuchs’ who in return for similar fealty will be granted ‘a monument and a name better than sons and daughters’ (56:5). In 63.17, a plea that the heat of divine judgment might soon cool begs YHWH to ‘(t)urn back for the sake of your servants, for the sake of the tribes that are your heritage’.

Each of these pluralizes the servant in a manner that hearkens back to the collective singular represented by ‘my servant Jacob’ prior to the Fourth Song’s intense individualization of the servant metaphor.

Now, in chapter 65, we encounter a new development. In the face of persistent idolatry on the part of practitioners of aberrant cult who appear to be members of the Community of the Return, YHWH laments the agile love that he has extended to them, unrequited. The result is a division of YHWH’s erstwhile people into a population whose unrelenting provocation of him will finally exhaust his patience, on the one hand, and a population of ‘servants’ who now become the recipients of his restorative mercies, on the other.

The chapter’s first seven verses profile the first of these two increasingly differentiated populations:

I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’ to a nation that did not call on my name.

I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; a people who provoke me to my face continually, sacrificing in gardens and offering incense on bricks; who sit inside tombs, and spend the night in secret places; who eat swine’s flesh, with broth of abominable things in their vessels; who say, ‘Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.’ These are a smoke in my nostrils, a fire that burns all day long.

 See, it is written before me: I will not keep silent, but I will repay; I will indeed repay into their laps their iniquities and their ancestors’ iniquities together, says the LORD; because they offered incense on the mountains and reviled me on the hills, I will measure into their laps full payment for their actions.

Isaiah 65:1-7 (NRSV)

It is important to observe that such a denunciation might well lead into the narrative of a failed restoration project and a severe judgement of the people in toto. Yet this is manifestly not what follows. Instead the passage pivots resolutely towards the existence of an obedient population of ‘servants’ in a fashion that binds the servant motif to the erstwhile theme of a remnant.

A subsequent oracle beginning at verse 8 drives the contrast between this freshly recruited band of ‘my servants’ and the doomed population from which they have been brought forth (‘from Jacob … from Judah’, v. 9) as deeply as can be imagined.

Thus says the LORD: As the wine is found in the cluster, and they say, ‘Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,’ so I will do for my servants’ sake, and not destroy them all. I will bring forth descendants from Jacob, and from Judah inheritors of my mountains; my chosen shall inherit it, and my servants shall settle there.

Sharon shall become a pasture for flocks, and the Valley of Achor a place for herds to lie down, for my people who have sought me.

But you who forsake the LORD, who forget my holy mountain, who set a table for Fortune and fill cups of mixed wine for Destiny;

 I will destine you to the sword, and all of you shall bow down to the slaughter; because, when I called, you did not answer, when I spoke, you did not listen, but you did what was evil in my sight, and chose what I did not delight in.

Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: My servants shall eat, but you shall be hungry; my servants shall drink, but you shall be thirsty; my servants shall rejoice, but you shall be put to shame; my servants shall sing for gladness of heart, but you shall cry out for pain of heart, and shall wail for anguish of spirit.

You shall leave your name to my chosen to use as a curse, and the Lord GOD will put you to death; but to his servants he will give a different name.

Then whoever invokes a blessing in the land shall bless by the God of faithfulness, and whoever takes an oath in the land shall swear by the God of faithfulness; because the former troubles are forgotten and are hidden from my sight.

Isaiah 65:8-16 (NRSV)

It is rather arbitrary to pause consideration of this motif without venturing into the explanatory (כי־הנני בורא…) oracle that begins at verse 17. Yet its entirely new cluster of creational imagery perhaps justifies one in doing so here, if momentarily.

If we take stock of how this chapter and its suggestive precursors (54.17, 56.6, 63.17) have begun to develop the Servant motif after its white-hot personalization and individualization in the Fourth Song, we will observe the return—if this is not too tendentious a term—to a collective identity. However, this newly named community of servants is no longer merely ‘Jacob’ or ‘Israel’. Rather, these servants comprise an obedient population within a divinely threatened nation, now become a kind of stay on YHWH’s hand, which might otherwise have struck the nation hard in response to its provocative defiance.

In the unfolding Isaianic drama of YHWH’s servant(s), the future now lies with this new collective, bearers of a new and genuine penchant for both obedience and gratitude. The former troubles forgotten to both YHWH and humankind, this community that bears an as yet unrevealed ‘different name’.

One senses that the Isaianic trajectory one struggles to follow, though not without steadily crystallizing instruction, has still more to declare.

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Arguably, the famous ‘parting of the ways’ between synagogue and church—between those Jewish communities that did not see in Jesus of Nazareth a reason for altering the evolving trajectory of Israel and those who saw it as that and more—can be mapped over a handful of biblical texts. If so, then the famous Servant Song that is Isaiah 53 (more precisely, 52.13-53.12) must figure prominently among its peers in such a collection.

Yet our too fast and our contextually inattentive readings of this text blind us to veiled allusions and subdued connections with other Isaianic texts.

Take, for example, the Song’s brief survey of the Servant’s unpromising origins in 53.2. Though not the beginning of the poem, it is the first reversion to incipience after an opening series of three verses (52.13-15) that capture midpoints and endings as a kind of orientational prelude.

(more…)

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